The company behind Juul, a popular vaping device sometimes called the “iPhone of e-cigarettes,” recently unveiled a $10 million radio and TV ad campaign titled “Make the Switch” aimed at adult smokers trying to quit.
After an FDA investigation into whether the company intentionally targeted minors, Juul Labs has undergone a kind of reinvention, emphasizing marketing to current smokers while ignoring the rampant use of the device among youth.
The company has tried to minimize its appeal to minors. In November 2018, Juul Labs announced that it would shut down all its social media accounts and suspended the sale of its flavored pods in retail stores. The company has also added additional age restrictions for online orders.
Nonetheless, Juul Labs’ efforts to shrug off its influence among youth as an accident while profiting from it suggests that the company operates as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It masquerades as a public health crusader while prioritizing business over health. As a result, we must evaluate the company's actions with caution.
The popularity of Juul and vaping in general, particularly among youth, is alarming.
In the results of a survey administered in early 2018 by the Institute for Research on Addictive Behavior, part of the IU School of Public Health, almost 30 percent of Indiana 12th graders reported using electronic vapor products in the past month, a 45 percent increase from 2017. Shockingly often, young users don’t know that each Juul pod contains nicotine, the addictive component of tobacco, as found in a national study by the Truth Initiative, a tobacco control organization, published this year. Moreover, young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke cigarettes.
Juul Labs’ previous actions suggest that it can’t be trusted among youth. In Colorado, Juul Labs attempted to sponsor anti-vaping programs in schools, a paradoxical tactic previously used by cigarette companies to appease the public rather than promote prevention.
Of course, Juul Labs can’t be trusted to prevent the use of its own product. Nonetheless, it is not permissible for Juul Labs to pretend that it plays no part in the astronomical rise in vaping among youth. This is a company that accounted for 40 percent of e-cigarette retail market shares in the last quarter of 2017, a mere two years after Juul hit the markets.
It is not just Juul Labs’ silence on its influence among youth that is an issue. Although e-cigarettes are likely less harmful than smoking, smokers who use e-cigarettes may be less inclined to quit, as found in a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in the Lancet.
Juul is not harmless. It contains nicotine, which means that it’s addictive. Juul also delivers nicotine 1.25-2.7 times faster than competing e-cigarettes with a nicotine concentration as potent as a traditional cigarette. Moreover, a 2015 study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that a byproduct of vaping is formaldehyde.
What can be done to curb the rise of Juul among youth and minimize harm? Although the company has changed its image to downplay its appeal to minors, they cannot shirk responsibility for the culture they have created.
E-cigarettes like Juul are so new that researchers simply don’t have a complete grasp on their long-term health effects. As researchers further investigate the effects of Juul, we will be able to make more informed decisions to maximize benefits and reduce harm.
Nonetheless, I worry that there will be obstruction to this process from companies like Juul Labs, the way the tobacco industry disseminated denialist propaganda of the link between cigarette use and lung cancer. If we have learned anything from that history, we must apply a critical eye in examining Juul Labs’ future interactions with public health programs and researchers.